Exploring the Swinging 70’s with the Inspector Morse series by Colin Dexter

morseI admit that the TV version of the sleuth sticks in my mind more than the description in the promotional copy on the back of one of the earlier books, “The lonely, sex-preoccupied, intelligent, relentless, beer-drinking Inspector Morse…” and indeed, in the books he is all of those things and they must have cleaned him up a bit for TV.  We should have a new sub-genre of British detective novels and that should be the dysfunctional detective.  Of course, when I bring most British detectives to mind, there seems to be something dysfunctional or quirky about all of them.  Maybe their poor social skills or awkward background are the things that make them good detectives.

These books are complicated mysteries and unlike say, some of Agatha Christie’s or of Rex Stout’s books (two mystery series writers who passed away in the 1970’s right when Dexter’s series was beginning) there are no easy to identify red herrings or any clues that will make you be able to figure out who murdered who.  In fact, even after Morse and Lewis have identified the killer or killers, it was still a torturous path to go back and see how Morse figured it out.  His key to success seems to lie more in the fact that he refuses to accept easy answers than in actually following clues to deduce who committed the crime.  It seems as if he just refuses to give in until the appropriate person makes a mistake or identifies themselves.

Morse loves opera, cross-word puzzles, a pint at the pub, and women, in no particular order.  In our day where any hint of inappropriate sexual behavior is called out, his preoccupation with pornography is notable.  Although not openly misogynistic, I read the first 4 books and women generally only appear as wives, secretaries, dead bodies, or objects of the Inspector’s romantic attention.  In other words, these books do not pass the Bechdel Test.  Can we say they are culturally misogynistic and leave it at that?  Perhaps later books show a more advanced frame of mind where ladies are concerned.

Morse is a loveable curmudgeon and truly a harbinger of dysfunctional detectives to come.  I don’t think you could have had detectives such as Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone or Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander without first having an Inspector Morse.


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